At the beginning of chapter five, Jesus gathers the crowds for his inaugural address. Up the mountain he finds a spot, waits as they settle in. He begins The Sermon on the Mount – chapters 5, 6, and 7 – with the Beatitudes, which we read last week: Blessed are the poor in spirit …blessed are those who mourn…blessed are the meek. Jesus was beginning, already, to turn everything upside down. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. All of those people heard that no matter what they were in the midst of…grief and loss, confusion, poverty and hunger and loneliness…that God was creating a new world.
Today’s text immediately follows The Beatitudes. After the grand preamble with all the “blesseds,” the turn feels a bit abrupt, right to these earthy metaphors. YOU are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world. In the Greek there is more emphasis: It is You who are salt, it is you who are light.1 Don’t be who you can be. Be who you already are.
But being salt and light was tough for Matthew’s community. In his commentary in the Westminster Bible Companion, Tom Long writes, “Matthew’s church was almost certainly located in an urban, cosmopolitan, and prosperous environment. … Matthew’s setting was one where people had to carve out an identity among many competing possibilities …the most frequent suggestion is that Matthew’s church was located in Antioch of Syria, a sizeable metropolis with a large, mixed population.”2 Surrounded by people who had come from many different places. Some were locals, many had moved from somewhere else, drawn by work, by education, by opportunities the area offered. And all these people had all sorts of opinions about things, some worshipped, some didn’t. How in the world were they to figure out what’s true?
I suspect that’s why Jesus took a different tack. Staring with the Beatitudes, and moving into today’s text, Jesus wasn’t giving precise instructions on how to live. Some comes later, but we don’t find in the Bible directions for what to do in every circumstance. Jesus, starting just before today’s text, said, “I know how it looks out there. BUT, I want you to know who is blessed. Not the powerful, not the mighty, not the rich and famously well educated. Here’s who is blessed: the poor – in mind, body, or spirit. Those who mourn. Those who have mercy. Those who seek peace.” THEY are blessed. And in today’s text he builds on that same surprising strategy – Jesus knew Matthew’s church couldn’t live as he wanted them to live unless they KNEW WHO THEY WERE. I am not asking you to be someone you aren’t, Jesus is saying. It is you who ARE salt, it is you who are light.
But challenges overwhelm. While a tiny bit of salt goes a long way, if salt, Matthew writes, loses its saltiness, what good is it? Jesus says this as a warning. It is possible for us to lose track of God’s claim on us, to not do what we are made to do. We lose it when we let anxiety control our decisions, when we lash out in anger, when we get selfish, gathering things to ourselves. We lose it when we get caught up in conversations that bring others down instead of building them up. We have been watching with no small amount of anxiety these weeks, certainly last weekend as airports all over were thrown into turmoil by an Executive Order that affected families throughout the world. I think all of us, everyone, is for thoughtful and thorough processes. All of us want to be safe. But when our desire for safety leads us to build walls and shut people out, to demonize people who come from other places, who believe different things, we lose something of ourselves. I am talking less about our government’s policies – I don’t think Republicans or Democrats have done a very good job on this. I am talking about our souls, our moral and ethical center as Christian people. As we seek to follow the God who calls us to welcome the stranger and offer hospitality, as we welcome others in the ways we would welcome Christ himself.3
I was sent an email this week with some words from the Right Rev. Russell Barr, the Moderator of the General Assembly of Scotland, who happened to do a pulpit exchange early in his ministry at Black Mountain Presbyterian, back when I was in middle school. He wrote: “History is littered with instances in which human distrust, xenophobia, and discrimination has sown hatred and conflict; our own desire for self-preservation taken at the exclusion of others. And yet throughout history the Bible has called Christians to live beyond hatred and fear, demonstrating a radical hospitality where the stranger finds welcome and refuge is provided for those who are oppressed.”4 When we give into fear, we begin to lose our saltiness. When we lash out in anger – to people from different countries or of different religions – or we lash out at friends and neighbors or people on social media with different politics, we put a bushel basket right over our light, over the God-created, God-beloved person YOU are, we all are. Don’t turn inward, reach out, toward another. Let your light SHINE, Christ says. Let it shine, so that others may see your good works and give glory to your father in heaven.
Monday I drove to Charlotte for the day. The mother of a friend of mine from Davidson had died after a long battle with cancer. The church was packed, and her husband, a former lawyer who retired early and became a Commissioned Lay Pastor in the Presbyterian Church, got up to speak. Toward the end of his homily, he told a story about his wife, Sallie, being on the phone with a Southwest Airlines customer service representative, trying to book a flight. This customer service representative, named Maureen, was giving Sallie a confirmation number. “Hold on,” Sallie said. “I’ve actually got brain cancer and I can’t remember things so well, I’ve got to get a pad of paper and write that down.” Then Sallie heard this SHOUT from over the phone, “DO NOT CLAIM IT – in the name of Jesus do not claim it!” Do not claim it, in the name of Jesus do not claim it. What? Sallie was jarred, not expecting the deep drawl and the language more common to our Pentecostal brothers and sisters than us staid Presbyterians. Do not claim it, in the name of Jesus do not claim it. These words were a revelation to her as the disease began to worsen – she wrote them down and carried them around in her pocket. She understood them to mean that no matter how bad things got that she would not allow cancer to have any power over her – that it did not define her. The cancer was not, would never be, who she was. Even unto death.
Do NOT claim so many of those ways of the world, Jesus says. Do not claim your fear of the other, do not let so much uncertainty around grab ahold of you. Do not claim our urge to lash out, or our desire to close ourselves in instead of sharing EVERYTHING we have with the God who gave it all for us. You are salt, Jesus says. You are light. You don’t have to try and be something you aren’t, he says to us. Live as I have made you, in love.
All praise be to God. Amen.
1. M. Eugene Boring. “Matthew” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. VIII, (Abingdon; Nashville,) p 181. This note comes from Joe Clifford’s paper on this text for the 2011 gathering of The Well, Davidson, NC.
2. Thomas G. Long. “Matthew,” in Westminster Bible Companion (Westminster/JKP: Louisville, 1997,) pp. 2-3, also in Clifford’s paper.
3. “What the Bible says about welcoming refugees.” January 29, 2017. The Conversation.
4. “Moderator “horrified” by USA travel ban.” January 30, 2017. The Church of Scotland. With gratitude to Florence Shelor.